Not glowing, but sweating (from An Alaskan in Alabama)

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the great differences between Alaska and Alabama is the sweating. While I recall sweating when I ran cross-country races or played no-rules soccer as a high schooler in Alaska, sweating was not a significant part of my life. Trying to avoid freezing, however, was. In a place in which it is all too easy to become injured, even die, of cold, staying warm is more than simple comfort: it’s an obsession. I still remember exiting the town’s indoor swimming pool as a child, my long hair not yet dry, and finding, within seconds, it seemed, that it had frozen. I always worried that I’d touch a strand of hair and it would complexly shatter like the giant icicles around the sides of the house: vast daggers shining in the midday sun. Being too hot was not anything I thought about, though every once in a while we’d have an Alaskan heat spell, which for coastal Alaskans meant anything over 65, which felt downright tropical. It’s warmer in the Interior, and I remember a summer spent at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks during which I even got a bit of a suntan. When I was not rehearsing a production of My Fair Lady or learning T.S. Eliot’s “The Naming of Cats,” I spent my time complaining that I was too darn hot.

In Alabama, however, I face a complete reversal of my Alaskan life. While mid-September to late April are blessedly largely humidity free, the other months are a sweaty, sweaty mess. During my time here I have rediscovered every pore in my body, because when the humidity does appear every pore seems to pour sweat. It’s amazing to me that by 9am in the morning on a day in early June my body could be covered with a sheen of suffocating, sticky moistness. And I sweat in the strangest places—places I have never even thought could sweat, from the back of my knees to my collarbone. The worst, however, is upper lip sweat. Tremulous drops of moisture congeal under my nose, balancing on my upper lip: tickling and torturing me. When I try to rub it, it’s an awkward gesture, particularly when my arms are full. I then look like a crazy person trying to contort herself into all sorts of awkward, angular shapes just trying to wipe off a little bit of that upper lip sweat that, to add even more unpleasantness to the whole situation, returns a microsecond after it is banished.

My mother, as I mentioned in an earlier post, says that a lady does not sweat, she glows. If that were the case, my glow in the humid months could light up the entire Eastern seaboard, the South, deep and not, and pretty much a large part of the U.S. But the truth is, in those months I sweat. I sweat a lot. I sweat in a profound and painfully present way that lets me know each second of the day that I am certainly not in Alaska. Of course, I could try to stay out of the sun, which might help, though even inside my apartment, doing as little as possible, I feel the prickle of sweat on my skin. I was trying to use as little cool as possible when the humidity set in, until I learned that if you don’t use at least some your leather goods will molder, and I’ve seen the evidence of what this humidity does to buildings, peeling off paint in huge pieces so it lies like autumn leaves on crumbling floors. So in those months I use some cool, but it’s never enough to keep away the sweat. And every bit of that cool air is fueled by dirty coal power: certainly, at best, a Faustian arrangement.

The second I leave a building during those days, I can feel sweat forming on my lower back, around my neck, under the brim of my hat. I use an umbrella to shield myself, wear my floppy hats, try to cover up or layer sunscreen, but while these help a bit with the sun’s effects, they do nothing to protect me from that sweat. It’s always a wonderful feeling, for a second, as I cross the threshold at work and feel the chill of the AC. Then my body almost goes into the shock, at the contrast, and the icy fingers around my body that felt so good on my over-warmed skin begins to feel clammy, then downright chilly, and I long for a good sweater.

When I come home after wandering around in the heat I can’t even decide which part of me is more uncomfortable, as EVERYTHING is crying out for relief. The sweetest moments of my day are the seconds as I step into the shower and feel the water slipping down my skin, curling into the sweat-matted hair at the nape of my neck, caressing my reddened skin, washing away the salt I rubbed on to take the first layer of sting out of the bites from the delightfully aggressive mosquitoes. Then there’s the moment when I step out of the shower, not only washed free of my sweat and the stink of a failed deodorant, but gleaming, pink and fragrant from my soap of oatmeal and lavender, utterly cool and clean. This lasts about 2 minutes, as I dry myself, put on my nightclothes, and move into the apartment. I touch a dish, pet a cat, and I’m sweaty again. I find I put off my shower as long as possible so I don’t go to bed sweaty again. Instead, I delay and delay that pleasure, trying instead to cool off as best I can with ice water, changes of clothes, or a blast of expensive cool air.

There’s a happy medium between too hot and too cold, but no one in Alabama seems to have discovered it. In the humid months find the town’s businesses to be so uncomfortably chilly that it’s like doing business in a meat locker or dining near an iceberg. This overly-aggressive use of AC., combined with a fondness for vehicles that means that people rarely have to do more than step from air-conditioned vehicle to air-conditioned home or business, might be the reason why so few people here really complain about the heat: they are rarely out in it. Given that I have no vehicle and like to try, if possible, to walk or bike, that’s not possible for me. And while it would be nice not to have one’s clothes constantly stick to one’s body—the worst being skirt or shorts that adhere to the backside every time one sits or rises—there’s something to be said for the challenge of really engaging with the heat. Of course, my desire for a challenge is often diminished when I’m actually out in the heat and start to feel broiled and faint.

At such times I truly understand that the weather here is, as promised, intensely hot and humid, and while that can certainly be unpleasant, I feel that not to be really out in the weather and part of it is to fail to honor a Southern summer for what it is: beautiful and painful, lush and sensuous, sweaty and one hot mess. Not only may an AC-love separate one from the summer weather—difficult as it is—but on a larger scale the manner in which so many of us have separated ourselves from our environments seems a problem. Take my fellow Alaskans, who heat buildings to such an extent that people have to take off their outer layers of clothes in discomfort, and who roam around increasingly large portions of the state in super-comfy SUVS, immune to the bite of below-zero temps. Or see my fellow Alabamans, ACing everything to such an extent that glasses-wearers such as me find their glasses fog up upon exiting a building, creating momentary blindness.

Such behavior speaks to a sense of separation from the world, the world that is and the one that we humans are, through our consumption of increasingly amounts of energy and resources, creating: one that may astound and frighten us, perhaps enough to make us look up from our computers and smart phones, exit our over-heated and over-cooled buildings, gaze into the sky and feel the world— its chill, its heat—against our long-protected skin. Then we might finally begin to understand and, not just because we desire to, but because we must, change.


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